Rob Walker | Essays

Stealth Iconography: Pinwheel of Death

The "pinwheel of death," via Polyvore.

The spinning rainbow circle informing a Mac user that his or her device is working on a problem, mild or severe, is sometimes informally referred to as the “pinwheel of death.” It’s a bit of a stealth icon: A symbol that’s become almost as recognizable and meaningful as a logo, even though it wasn’t really designed to take on that role. It’s not quite at the Fail Whale level of emblem-of-not-working. But I’m sure that Apple would just as soon not see the thing become so familiar that it can serve as the basis of a comedy bit at TED.

I’ve always wondered if the pinwheel intentionally references the color-bar version of the test pattern that I remember from childhood — the image that wordlessly told us to “please stand by.” (At least that’s my color-bar association, though I realize “SMPTE bars” serve a color-calibration function.) I can’t remember the last time I encountered color bars on an actual television set, but it’s a visual cue that I see referenced all the time; there’s a sort of nostalgia to the image, I think. Or maybe spinning wheel’s color scheme is a lingering reference to the rainbow pattern Apple used to use in its logo. According to the surprisingly interesting “spinning wait cursor” Wikipedia entry, the icon originated at NeXT, the computer company Steve Jobs ran between his Apple stints.

Whatever the intent, “please stand by” is a fair summation of what the pinwheel communicates. The video from TED, linked above, shows Improv Everywhere having fun with this signal, as an ersatz presenter finds himself with a slide show that won’t load; the uncomfortable moment he and the audience spend staring helplessly at the pinwheel is resolved with a silly dance number that’s almost a celebration of this colorful icon of the techno-glitch. The pinwheel is also referred to sometimes as a “beachball,” and this figures into the performance. It’s not the best thing Improv Everywhere has ever done, but I like the idea of converting the pinwheel of death into a focal point and a creative inspiration. (For a more subtle reuse of the pinwheel, see this amusing GIF.)

But mulling this while I watched the TED video on YouTube, I noticed something odd: an ad off to the side for Google Chromebook. (These are laptops running Google Chrome OS; Chrome may be better known as Google’s Web browser.) I was struck by the resemblance of the Chrome logo to the pinwheel of death.

Screen shot from TED video viewed on YouTube.

I can’t imagine this was intentional. Nobody would consciously set out to reference a graphic symbol associated with waiting, and possible failure.

Unless, it’s some sort of incredibly roundabout attempt on Google’s part to subconsciously remind us all that Apple products aren’t perfect? Okay, probably not. And maybe I’m just on a tangent here, and should get back to work on more substantial matters. Please stand by.  

Chrome logo, via Engadget.

Previous examples of stealth iconography: The Google Maps pin, and the waveform

Comments [10]

The Chrome logo was launched in 2008 in 3D form (as opposed to its current flat, 2D incarnation), and many at the time noticed its resemblance to the popular game Simon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OriginalSimon.jpg). One blogger wondered whether it was an example of Google's fondness for referencing cultural milestones, as 2008 was Simon's 30th anniversary (http://www.xconomy.com/national/2008/09/05/simon-and-the-google-chrome-logo-separated-at-birth/). Others saw it as a rethinking of the Windows logo (http://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/origin-of-the-google-chrome-logo). Of course, it could be that the clever minds at Google found a way to reference all three: Simon, Windows, and Apple's pinwheel of death.

My instantaneous impression of this logo was a childhood game I played called Simon Says, with it's primary-colored buttons on a flying saucer-like game board/device.
Michael Guthrie

Sorry, I meant specifically, the Google logo. The pinwheel stills represents death, to me :)
Michael Guthrie

I'm gonna post multiple links after the info bellow, view them in the order they are and you'll get deeper in the rabbit whole Rob Walker is talking about at the end of his post...

The concept of chakra originates in Hindu texts, featured in tantric and yogic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Its name derives from the Sanskrit word for "wheel" or "turning"


The Thought Chakra or Crown. It is located near the top of the skull and is our center for enlightenment. This Chakra presents us with the gift of cosmic consciousness allows and the universal flow of wisdom to flow freely through our being This is also the location where life passed into our physical body. Our souls enter into the body through theCrown Chakra at birth and leaves from here when we pass on. If unbalanced one may experience constant frustration, depression, and lack happiness and joy in life. When in balanced this Chakra grants us the ability channel the Divine and link our subconscious and unconscious minds.
This is a visual representation of it:


To fin out more on the topic subscribe with your email on this blog here: http://lumenego.blogspot.com

Good luck!

flavius frantz

OK, here is a link that explains what I've just said a little bit more :

Why do big corporations use certain colors in their logos ?[part1]
flavius frantz

Fascinating point about Simon — I had that game/object as a kid. A very curious "toy," when I think back on it. I certainly hadn't thought of it in this context, but I see your point, Braulio and Michael.

Flavius, thanks for those links, as well.
Rob Walker

I always thought of it as the "beachball of death" and the decision to make a failure somehow "cute" has always puzzled me. A non-responsive colorful icon is almost doubly-infuriating--as though it is having fun at your expense, immune to all attempts on your part to desperately recover the file or process you were attempting to use. It is a subtle reminder of how much I would rather be on a beach rather than troubleshooting my wife's Macbook woes.

Additionally, it is like using perfume to mask an odious smell - you quickly begin to associate the perfume itself with vomit or dog feces or whatever--in this case cutesy evokes simmering rage.

A new Google Chrome commercial (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTjHCCU2E4c) is the first one I've noticed that has the logo spinning (right at the end, around 1:28). Seeing it motion makes the "pinwheel of death" reference even stronger ...

Braulio, thanks for that, very interesting.
And Chauncey: I missed your comment earlier, but I love the point, you're right, it does seem like the spinning beachball is having fun at the user's expense! Really funny, and true.
Rob Walker

So Microsoft has updated its logo. Interestingly, as Google did with Chrome, it's now "flat" as opposed to 3D.


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